Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Business and work (page 1 of 24)

Rest helped me “manage the balance sheet and navigate my part in the P&L through the” crash “in such a way as we made money.“

Banker and portfolio manager Greg McKenna writes in the Australian edition of Business Insider that “As summer approaches, here’s some good news – rest more, work less and get more done:”

Pang said that some of the world’s most creative people… used the restorative properties of rest to “restore their energy while allowing their muse, the mysterious part of their minds that helps drive the creative process, to keep going”.

I myself – one holiday in Yamba in the early days of the global financial crisis (GFC) – had the time to sit on the beach and on the couch to read David Hackett Fischer’s “Great Wave – Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History”. Sure, it was a history of inflation, but it was also coincidentally a history of the economy and banking crises for 800 years.

It set me up perfectly as treasurer of a small bank to manage the balance sheet and navigate my part in the P&L through the GFC in such a way as we made money.

All simply because I took the time to rest, relax, restore, and read.

A great example of how rest is essential and generative even (or maybe especially) during a crisis.

6 reasons why it’s more productive to work less

A while ago I had a piece in CEO Magazine (which I believe is published in Australia and New Zealand) offering “6 reasons why it’s more productive to work less.” I just saw tonight that the piece, which was behind a firewall when it first came out, is now available for free.

Today, overwork is the new normal. A 2015 survey by EY found that half of all managers worked more than 40 hours a week, and 39% were working more hours than in 2010. We treat rest as uninteresting, unimportant, and even a sign of weakness.

There are many reasons people feel the need to put in long working hours, and cultural norms that encourage overwork, but a small army of neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists and engineers have shown that overwork is counterproductive in the long term.

They’ve found that regular breaks, outside hobbies, holidays and sabbaticals, sleep, and even daily naps make you a better worker. Why leaders should pay more attention to rest, and encourage the people who work for them to embrace it, too.

Reading it now, some of it anticipates the issues I talk about in my forthcoming book SHORTER (US | UK). Odd how these ideas run around, only semi-recognized, until they turn into something!

The Drum’s 4-day week

London

The Drum, which covers the marketing industry in Europe, has released a video about the 4-day week at The Lab, a London agency works a 4-day week with a 10-hour day. “‘Thursday is the new Friday’ is a phrase that we’re all familiar with but it’s now becoming a reality for workers at companies that are adopting a four-day week,” Drum CEO Diane Young says.*

It’s a good video, as you’d expect from a media company that follows the marketing world, and it does a good job talking about the benefits and challenges of shifting to a 4-day week. As founder Jonny Tooze explains,

I think one of the key things… is that because we are working slightly less hours, and those hours are compressed, we’ve had no real choice but to to improve process and become more efficient. And as a result, actually, the business is a better business.

Later, he expands on the benefits:

Having a workforce that is super-engaged is fundamental to the success of a business. The 4-day working week does improve engagement in business, there’s no two ways about it. If you’ve got higher engagement you have high productivity, you’ll get better work from people, you get more discretionary effort, people will love the business more, and love being part of it more. That will also increase profitability for the business.

And also it will give you a chance to have some time off as leaders…. In my day off, you know, I do a lot of thinking about the business. One of the things that I found, and one of the things I really hoped to find, was boredom: I’ve actually found periods of boredom back in my life…. The natural human reaction to boredom is to get creative, and it forces you to be creative as a person– and that is where life really is, right, that’s where the essence of life is, when you’re in a creative space. If you’re hectic and busy and you know write on emails and social media and running around doing this job and that job and that job, you are just absolutely not creative whatsoever. When you’re sitting, then you’ve got a shitload of time to do whatever the hell you want, and you get inspired; you can be creative and you can just do some amazing stuff of your life.

And that’s what people are doing right now. You’ll find that in the business… the stuff they’re doing is immense and really fun.

Young also interviews several people at the company about how they use their extra time, and how a 4-day week changes daily work. As one person explains,

It’s longer days because we still work the same amount of hours…. It’s more intense as well, but in a way it’s good because it helps you prioritize really on what you actually need to do. So then you focus on the stuff that you actually really really need to get done within a week, and you don’t have as much time to get sidetracked by email… or slack messages coming in all the time. So you just keep your focus where it needs to be.

*As is so often the case, the automated transcript is garbage; for some reason, Scottish accents remain impervious to artificial intelligence. I spent some time in Glasgow and Edinburgh interviewing companies for my new book, and I use an automated service to create transcripts; it’s almost always awesome, but it chokes once you go north of Hadrian’s wall.

“there is much to be said for Mr Pang’s conclusion that the belief in the power of the 80-hour week is piffle.”

Views from the Eye

Financial Times editor and columnist Pilita Clark has a piece that puts REST against the workaholic pose of the current government:

Brexit, one of the most important events in British postwar history, may have been placed in the hands of men and women who have gone without a summer break and worked for days on end for the best part of two months straight.

This is not brilliant. This is loopy.

There is plenty of evidence showing people who work mad hours are more prone to get ill, drink heavily and make rubbish decisions….

A lot of people think they can get by with just five or six hours of sleep a night with no serious dip in performance. Experts say they are deluded: all but a tiny portion of us need a good seven to nine hours a night.

Worst of all, more hours do not necessarily mean more productivity. A study of workers at a global consultancy firm a few years ago found their bosses could not tell the difference between those who toiled for 80 hours a week and those who simply pretended to. [Ed: This is the great study by Erin Reid.]

This is especially striking to me because Boris Johnson (whose penchant for overwork, or at for least crisis-provoking procrastination, I’ve noted here before) is a huge fan of Winston Churchill, and so must be aware that during the war Churchill worked a lot, but also was very disciplined about getting rest when he needed.

This was driven home to me when I visited the Churchill War Rooms, the underground complex from which he ran the war. Among the meeting rooms, radio rooms, etc., there’s this:

Churchill War Rooms

Churchill had a bed installed in the War Rooms, and every afternoon he took a nap. As I explain in REST, Churchill

regarded his midday naps as essential for maintaining his mental balance, renewing his energy, and reviving his spirits. He had gotten into the habit of napping during World War I, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, and even during the Blitz Churchill would retire to his private room in the War Rooms after lunch, undress, and sleep for an hour or two…. Churchill’s valet, Frank Sawyers, later recalled, “It was one of the inflexible rules of Mr. Churchill’s daily routine that he should not miss this rest.”

A couple other rooms also had small beds in them so his more senior could catch up on sleep when they needed.

Churchill War Rooms

Now, Churchill spent a lot of time in the bunker, and it was his command center through the worst of the war, when things looked very dicey for Britain and the Allies. Yet, he still made time for rest. I think it’s hard to argue that this didn’t improve his decision-making and leadership, but it also had a subtler impact, I think:

Not only did a nap help Churchill keep up his energy, his sangfroid also inspired his cabinet and officers. Napping during boring parliamentary debates was one thing. Going to sleep literally while bombs were falling signaled Churchill’s confidence in his staff and his belief that the dark days would pass.

Hitler, in contrast, was famous for his erratic sleep habits and reliance on drugs to keep himself going for long periods. If you wanted someone who illustrates how working long hours doesn’t lead to better results, you couldn’t find a better example. (Indeed, the whole Reich turns out to have been really into stimulants: they described meth as “National Socialism in pill form.”)

And it didn’t send a good message to his subordinates. There’s no better way to say “I don’t trust you to do a good job” than  overwork.

One other point: if you read the comments on the piece, they’re basically why I’ve written my next book:

This all sounds good, except if you work for a company that demands that you work 24/7, you will lose your job if you don’t deliver.  I worked for several companies, on salary, that gave you so much work to do that you had to work virtually 7 days a week to get it done….

Japanese and Koreans, who unnecessarily hang around the workplace after 5pm, need to read this.

My partner is Japanese and is angry at that part of Japanese work culture. I used to work for a large corp in Tokyo and during our busy season we’d stay until midnight. However, after 5/6 pm every day I’d notice a dramatic drop in my energy and focus.

Lots of comments point to the structural impediments that constrain people from working more effectively, and working less; and they’re absolutely right that there are hard limits to how much we can do as individuals to reduce our working hours. This is why it’s important, I think, to show how to change the structures, to look at the companies (in the UK, Asia, United States, and elsewhere) that are already moving to 4-day or 30-hour weeks, and to learn from them how to redesign work.

Also, if the FT firewall gets in your way, there’s also this reprint in Channel News Asia.

How conforming to ideology gets money-laundered into expressing personal preference

You can bet this is going into my next talk! Don’t know what #workmode is, but I spotted this windows near the University of Amsterdam.

A friend recently asked me how much things like our embrace of overwork and the M-curve in women’s employment (the phenomenon of women dropping out of the workforce after having their first child, and reentering after the youngest is in school) reflects personal preference, versus structural limitations.

I want to play around with the idea that maybe it’s all structure, all the way down: that even what we think of as personal preference is just money-laundering of ideology to make us feel like we have more control over our lives.

Why am I thinking about it this way? I just read a Harvard Business Review piece by Alison Wynn and Aliya Hamid Rao about the use of (or non-use) of flexible work programs at management consulting firms.

Management consulting firms offer some of the best workplace flexibility policies, including benefits like paid leaves and sabbaticals. Most employees, however, don’t take advantage of them. This seems like a missed opportunity, especially since management consultants continue to experience extremely high levels of work-life conflict, leading to problems such as low satisfaction and high turnover.

They interviewed people at these firms, and found that some of this was about avoiding flexibility stigma– the informal penalties that come from using flex work or part-time programs– but management consultants “also avoided flexibility policies in order to maintain a sense of personal control: they preferred the freedom to manage their work-life balance as they saw fit, rather than opting into a company policy.”

The problem is that this perception of greater control didn’t seem to alleviate their work-life conflicts. Our interviewees told us about many family sacrifices, health problems, and suffering relationships due to their busy work schedules. When asked why they didn’t try the flexibility benefits available to them, they dismissed them as unusable.

In other words, they weren’t any more successful at crafting their own policies, but they felt that because work-life balance is a personal thing, and that problem-solving is What Consultants Do, that they should be able to do this, and that their own bespoke solution would be better than the company policy.

As  Vivia Chen comments in The American Lawyer, “What malarkey that they think they’re in control.” I see academics doing something similar. They have a lot of freedom (in theory) to schedule their working lives as they wish, but there’s also enormous pressure to conform to a professional idea of being a high-performing, constantly-publishing thought machine; and so academics end up internalizing this pressure, and converting it into a choice they make, rather than something  that’s imposed on them.

This seems crazy to me, too, and I hope that my next book helps push the needle from “work-life balance is a personal thing for which we are are individually responsible” territory, closer to “work-life balance is a structural issue that requires collective action.”

(The longer version of their study is available here.)

“Medicine has become something of a stealth family-friendly profession”

Claire Cain Miller, who writes some great stuff about work and family for the New York Times, has a piece about mothers and medical practice:

Medicine has become something of a stealth family-friendly profession, at a time when other professions are growing more greedy about employees’ time. Jobs increasingly require long, inflexible hours, and pay disproportionately more to people who work them. But if one parent is on call at work, someone else has to be on call at home. For most couples, that’s the woman — which is why educated women are being pushed out of work or into lower-paying jobs.

But medicine has changed in ways that offer doctors and other health care workers the option of more control over their hours, depending on the specialty and job they choose, while still practicing at the top of their training and being paid proportionately….

Female doctors are likelier than women with law degrees, business degrees or doctorates to have children. They’re also much less likely to stop working when they do.

Flexible, predictable hours are the key — across occupations — to shrinking gender gaps, according to the body of research by Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard. As American employers struggle to adapt to the realities of modern family life and as younger generations of workers demand more balance, medicine offers a road map.

In the case of medicine, the rise of larger practices and hospitals as the main employers of doctors means that hours have become more predictable, there’s less time on call when you’re not at work, and “there are more people who can serve as substitutes and divide night and weekend work.”

Of course, there are still specialties where the hours remain crazy, and those tend to attract more men. Further, women work fewer hours than men on average, though that’s a difference between 50-hour weeks and 60-hour weeks.

As UCLA economist Melanie Wasserman says, “If employers are serious about improving gender diversity in their work force, they might want to think seriously about how they are structuring their jobs.”

Which raises the question: “if doctors have figured out how to work predictable hours and substitute for one another — for things like delivering babies, diagnosing diseases or saving lives — couldn’t other occupations, too?”

Tim Harford writes about REST

Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist, had a nice column in the Financial Times that talks about Rest:

Three reasons to take a holiday — especially a short one

I know a man who used to deal with a stressful job, working 15-18 hour days in a senior role, by slipping away to a rented house near Richmond Park in London.

There, he refused to be interrupted by messages except during office hours, spent time playing bridge well and golf badly, and he ensured that the location of the hideaway was a well-kept secret. The few colleagues who did visit were strictly banned from talking about work. Yet despite his apparently laid-back approach, this fellow got results.

To be clear, I know this person only by reputation; Dwight Eisenhower died before I was born. But this is how he responded to the burdens of being supreme allied forces commander during the second world war. He found it essential to take time off.

We would all like to feel that our work is essential and our personal contribution irreplaceable. But, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, notes, we’re unlikely to be doing quite as essential a job as Eisenhower’s. If he benefited from some down time, so might we.

So Harford tells the story better than I did. Still, it’s nice to be noticed!

Harvard Business Review makes the case for my next book

In the Harvard Business Review blog, Ben Laker (one of the authors of the recent Henley Business School report on the 4-day week) and Thomas Roulet make a case for the 4-day week. It closes with this:

The recent attempts in the UK suggest the debate around the four-day workweek is only starting. While it can bring clear benefits with regards to employees’ well-being and ability to focus, implementation across organizations is made difficult by competitive and structural pressures in some sectors. In addition, there are still some negative perceptions of the practice, as well as concerns among workers regarding the way they will be seen by their peers and superiors.

Still, the idea requires proper consideration, and the potential benefits suggest a trial-and-error approach is the best way forward. Such a path would help us understand under which conditions a shorter workweek might succeed and when the benefits can outweigh the costs. The countries and organizations that can crack the code of the four-day week first could build a competitive advantage, if they can implement it in a way that maximizes the well-being benefit on the longer term while minimizing the short-term rise in labor and operational costs.

Have I got a book for you guys….

My talk at Google

Recently I was at Google, at the invitation of the Asian Googlers Network, to talk about Rest, my new work on the 4-day week, and even a bit about contemplative computing. The video of the talk is now up on YouTube:

It was a terrific crowd, and I just hope I did the subject justice!

Washington Post on the 4-day week in America

Jeff Stein at the Washington Post has a piece about the 4-day week and the lack of interest in it among American progressives and unions:

In Europe, signs abound of interest in continuing to cut working hours. The four-day week has won backing from some of the biggest unions in Ireland and Britain, while plans to dramatically cut working hours have been embraced by large unions in Germany, the Netherlands and France….

But so far, the idea has failed to gain significant attention from the American left or labor movement. Jon Steinman, who worked at the Office of Congressional Ethics, said he is starting an advocacy group in the United States to push a four-day week, although the organization is still in its infancy.

The Democratic Socialists of America and the Justice Democrats, two left-wing groups that have pushed Democrats left, have not backed the idea yet. None of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have embraced the idea, despite similarly ambitious proposals for a federal jobs guarantee or a universal basic income.

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